Going Dvorak

Last Updated on: 28th October 2023, 11:00 am

This blog post is going to take me forever to write, partly because it has given me a lot to think about, and partly because I’m a fool and am trying out the Dvorak keyboard.

The other day, Randy Cassingham talked about his love of the dvorak keyboard. He talked it up so much that I decided to give it a try. I cannot say yet that I have fallen head over heels for the layout, but it has taught me several things about myself, and the human brain in general.

First, I completely understand the expression “Old habits die hard,” but trying this keyboard really hammered that point home. I have been typing since I was 8 years old, so I think it’s a pretty old habit, and it definitely does not want to die. I wonder if I can make the qwerty and dvorak typing methods coexist in my brain. Others have managed it. The question is can I?

I think I’m making progress though. When I started, I was banging every single key I went to hit, and I had to say every letter out loud, as if speaking it aloud would help me find it. I don’t have to do that anymore. Then came my brain’s attempts to get me used to the new layout, which were an epic fail. I would reach for a key, and I would suddenly envision pairs of letters. Sometimes the association would help. The pair of letters would be the old letter in its new location. But sometimes, my brain would try to be logical. For example, I had managed to memorize that the letter c was now located where the i used to be. Then I would try to type an i by hitting what used to be c. Fail! The i is located where g used to be. What really jynxes me is the letters a and m are where they always were. So, after typing an a or an m, my brain tries to revert to qwerty thinking.

Now, when I make an error in where I think a letter should be, at least I’m in the ballpark. I no longer have to hit whole rows of letters praying I find the one I’m looking for. Thank god for JAWS keyboard help. I can turn that on and slam keys to my little heart’s content and JAWS just tells me what the key does and nothing goes through to Windows.

I think everybody who teaches standard typing should occasionally switch their keyboard to dvorak just to remind themselves how hard it is to learn something like typing. When you’ve typed as long as I have, it becomes second nature and I don’t even think of it as a practiced skill, even though I know it is. But the point is when I’m writing, I don’t have to think about the typing aspect of things. From what I know of the brain, my cerebellum is taking care of that for me, leaving me to focus fully on what I’m trying to say. I take the typing part completely for granted. Now that the keys have all moved, not only do I have to compose thoughts and keep my train of thought, but I have to consciously think about where I have to put each finger to make each letter.

I am such an impatient student. I remember how I learned to type. It involved drills, lots and lots of ’em. But I can’t seem to make myself do drills. I did a few repetitions of each side of the home row, then the thing where you take each finger and press the key directly above and the key directly below, and a few repetitions of “The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog,” but after that, I’m all drilled out.

I can’t completely blame myself for not wanting to do drills though. I mean, with the old layout, you at least had one vowel on the left side. So, you could at least make words, even if they were small and stupid when you only knew one side. Now, all the vowels are on the left! This should, in theory, open up a world of possibilities. But when you only know one side, all you can type is aoeui aoeui aoeui. Ooo. I’m so inspired to continue these drills. Feel the progress. But when I look at that, I think I’m just making excuses.

I emailed Randy Cassingham and asked him if he had any tips for me, and he generously pointed me in the direction of the place with the best dvorak tutorials. We’ll see what we can find.

I don’t think I will truly be able to feel the difference until I can get my speed up, but I have caught myself thinking, “That key is right there?” a lot, so maybe there’s something to this.

So, if you’re feeling brave and want to try Dvorak, the cool thing is it’s already built into Windows. You just have to turn it on. Here are the instructions for Vista, and here are the ones for XP.

I was too chicken to just flat out make Dvorak my default keyboard layout, since I wasn’t sure how JAWS would respond. People told me it *should* be fine, but there’s a big difference between should be and is, and since I don’t do the mouse, I kinda need a functional keyboard. A side-effect of not having it as the default is that it’s only on in programs where you have previously turned it on. For example, I am writing this post in notepad. As soon as I leave notepad to use another program, qwerty comes back! But as soon as I come back to notepad, hello Dvorak, whatcha knowin’? Usually I don’t have JAWS set to speak every letter I type, but right now, I need it to do that so a. I can learn the new layout, and b. I don’t accidentally write a garbled missive thinking I’m in one layout when I’m in fact in the other.

I have discovered 2 JAWS quirks, no, make that three. One is occasionally, JAWS falsely reports that I’m in one mode when I am in the other. Luckily, a couple of quick presses of control-shift fixes that problem. The other one is if you are cutting and pasting, It doesn’t say “cut text” or “pasted” anymore. If you look with the arrows, you will see that it did work. You just don’t get that automatic confirmation anymore. It will also falsely say “cut” and “paste” when you press the old key combos. The third is no matter which layout you’re in, any keystroke that passes directly through to JAWS remains in its qwerty location.

So wish me luck. Maybe I can type faster than I already do in qwerty. Oh, just so you all know, I started writing this post yesterday. I took breaks, but the point is I’m for sure not fast yet.

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